Guy Dossi
The Union Democrat

OAKDALE — Sonora and Oakdale high schools join forces athletically very often.

But for the past six summers, the rivals have combined to create SOAK, a water polo club that features different age groups of players. This past weekend, the 18 and under SOAK team qualified to compete in the Junior Olympics, which take place July 28-31 in Santa Clara.

Advancing to the Junior Olympics is nothing new for SOAK and is becoming an expected tradition. In the qualifying tournament, SOAK placed fifth, which is not as high as co-head coach Matt Personius would have liked, but being in the tournament is better than the alternative.

“We anticipated qualifying this year,” said Personius, who is the head coach of the Sonora Wildcats boys’ and girls’ water polo team. “Really, the Junior Olympic qualifying tournament is about how well we can do against teams from our zone and hopefully come out with a higher ranking in the national tournament.”

Every Wednesday evening, Sonora’s Josie Personius, Kayla Estrada and Sammie Slater (Slater did not practice Wednesday due to illness) along with Coach Personius make the trek from Sonora to Oakdale to practice with their summer teammates. There is also one player from Ripon on the team.

Personius and Oakdale head coach Diane Kline team up to lead the SOAK. Personius and Kline have similar coaching styles and philosophies, so the learning curve is not too difficult for the players to grasp.

“Matt and I have a very similar approach to how we coach, so the styles of the two teams are very similar,” said Kline, who has been the head coach at Oakdale for the past nine years. “It takes a while to build a little bit of chemistry. Once we go to the Junior Olympics, we will see that southern California teams tend to be a little more aggressive. There is a lot more movement in some areas, so that is different for us.”

Building solid chemistry is easier said than done. With one team practice per week, the two hours the players have together every Wednesday night is crucial that all the bases get covered and everyone is on the same page.

Unlike playing on a high school team, where players can socialize and build relationships during class or on breaks, the SOAK have only two Wednesday hours and tournaments to bond.

“This is our sixth year working together and every year they all work better together and it keeps our high school games competitive,” Kline said. “They get to know each other and build some friendships with the girls from Sonora, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

Bigger and better

The Junior Olympics are a different animal than Sonora is used to playing against. With some of the best players in the country competing in the tournament, the girls will get to see how they match up.

Personius hopes that the exposure to a higher level of competitiveness will translate into a stronger Wildcat in the fall.

“This is all about exposing kids to a higher level of play and a better brand of water polo,” Personius said. “When they go to the Junior Olympic tournament, they play against not only great teams, but will get an opportunity to play against the best players in the country for their age. So they are competing against college bound players who will be division 1 athletes at some point. The exposure is huge and we hope it brings a higher level of play to the high school play in the fall.”

And the cap is not pulled over the Sonora players’ eyes. They know they are playing against great competition, and they relish the opportunity.

“We are playing against a lot of bigger and better teams who have been playing together for years and have coaches that have recruited them,” said Josie Personius, who will begin her senior season in the fall. “At Junior Olympics, you have girls who have been playing together since they were eight, so it’s a lot more competitive. So it’s a little more stressful than high school because you know there are bigger things on the line.”

“The Junior Olympics is a much bigger tournament with teams from all over the United States and it really gives them a chance to have a spotlight in a much bigger arena,” Kline said. “So even for the Sonora girls to come out on a really big stage with college coaches sitting on the deck, I think makes it a bigger deal than league championships.”

Expecting big things

In 2015, the Wildcats girls’ team made it to the semifinals of the playoffs. With seven returning starters, high expectations have been made and a return trip to the playoffs is expected.

Playing in the Junior Olympic tournament will help when they reach playoffs, because they have already played pressure-filled contests. But it’s not like the Sonora players know nothing of pressure with their deep playoff run last year.

“Playing high level polo in the summer, ends up giving them confidence to be competitive in the fall,” Personius said. “But, I also think that each different experience feeds off of itself and the girls gained confidence in the playoffs last fall. A lot of the girls felt like they could have, and should have done better.”

For Estrada, the 2015 season was her first in high school. Now, entering her senior year, she is hoping the experience from being a member of SOAK will help when she rejoins her Sonora teammates in the fall.

“We are really excited for this season because we have so many returning players,” Estrada said. “But playing with the more competitive teams has really helped me to learn the sport better. It’s made me progress a lot faster than if I was will less competitive teams.”

Staying in the water

It’s more difficult to become good at water polo. To have time in a pool and master the skills is not available to everyone.

So for the Sonora girls, getting some early run in the pool is something Personius knows will be beneficial. A lot of the players swim in the spring on the swim team, but tend to not touch a water polo ball for the majority of the summer.

“The more they are in the water, the more competent they become at their skill sets and their level of play increases exponentially,” Personius said. “This is a really tough game to get good at. All sports are hard to perfect and this is no different and maybe even a little more difficult to perfect some of the elements that create success at a high level.”

The Sonora girls meet four days a week and spend a total of two hours per day in the water. So while a lot of their friends are out enjoying the early summer nights, Personius, Slater and Estrada are in the water.

“This is helping me to become a more competitive water polo player,” Estrada said. “It takes a lot of commitment. Staying in shape and doing school swim and swim at the local gym is very important. Being here every week and making sure we are having good chemistry is also key.”

It’s still Sonora vs. Oakdale

After the Junior Olympics come to an end, the Sonora girls will go back to being Wildcats and the Oakdale players will return to being Mustangs. It has been Oakdale that has dominated the league for the past numbers of years, and Sonora has had to settle with being the bridesmaids. This year, they are hoping to become the bride.

“Frankly, we have played second fiddle to the Oakdale girls for the past number of years,” Personius said. “They have a great team and have a very successful program. So I think it’s been beneficial for our kids and come fall, there is a competitive atmosphere, but the girls appreciate and respect each other. I think that’s good for the sport.”

When the two teams meet during the regular season, there may be smile exchanged the players before the game, but once the ball is in play, both squads mean business.

“It’s super competitive because you really want to prove something,” said Josie Personius. “You want to prove that our school is better. It’s more competitive with Oakdale than it is with other teams.”

Megan Slater

Megan Slater, the younger sister of Sammie, also qualified to play in the Junior Olympics. Slater is not a member of SOAK, rather the Big Valley Water Polo Club. Slater is a member of the 16U team and her team finished third in the Junior Olympics qualifying tournament.

Slater is entering eighth grade, so Personius knows he will have a quality player in a few years.

“It’s great to have a young kid playing water polo at a higher level,” Personius said. “It will mean that much more experience and confidence by the time she’s a high schooler. Being the younger sibling of a player also helps her, so that is going to make her a more well-rounded player.”